A first for Chip Kelly: Cutdown day

Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 28, 2013

In his career, Chip Kelly already has experienced everything that comes along with coaching a football team, with one notable exception. There aren't many cutdown days in college.

"We have none," Kelly said.

That part of the NFL game is new to him. These aren't recruits who stay on scholarship even if they can't stay on the field. These are professionals who sometimes have to be told that their livelihood won't be continuing here.

"There's only a certain number of guys who are going to make it. You start with 90 and end up with 53. How that comes about is difficult," Kelly said. "Sometimes, it's an injury . . . and they understand, 'I didn't make the team because I got hurt,' but other guys - they gave it everything they had and it's just not in the cards for them. It's a difficult time."

The Eagles made a cut over the weekend and are down to 76 players, one over the limit that must be reached by Tuesday afternoon. On Saturday, the big cut will be made to 53 players. Already, the team has released safety Kenny Phillips and veteran Eagles linebacker Jamar Chaney. Other familiar names probably will be following them out the door before the week is over.

Thursday's final exhibition game, which will be contested almost entirely with the starters on the sideline, is the last chance for players on the bubble to play their way into a more secure position. Guys like Clay Harbor are in that group, although his versatility as a wideout, combined with the injury to Jeremy Maclin, could let him stay as the team's fourth tight end. Nose tackle Antonio Dixon is also in a fight to carve out a spot for himself. And then there is linebacker Casey Matthews, the 2011 fourth-round draft pick who has drifted from starter to special-teams player in his two seasons with the Eagles.

The list is much longer, of course, and there will be surprises that can't be predicted, but those will be interesting decisions for Kelly, and maybe none more interesting than Matthews.

"If you start thinking too much about cuts, it will weigh on you, and you start overthinking things," Matthews said after Monday's practice at Lincoln Financial Field. "You try to stay away from that topic as long as possible. If it comes, it comes. You're here right now and make sure you're ready. You don't know how long you're going to play in this league, [whether it's] injuries or being cut. Just go out and play like it's your last play."

Kelly was the head coach at Oregon when Matthews was a junior and a senior. Would that association give Matthews the benefit of a coin flip if he is battling either Emmanuel Acho or Jake Knott for the last inside linebacker slot? Or if it comes down to keeping one more player specifically for special teams, could that matter? Matthews isn't counting on it.

"This is still his team and his players. It doesn't matter that I played for him before," Matthews said. "Our relationship was good and it's not any different now, but he focuses on the offensive side. He comes over to the defense if he has to, but it's not like he treats me any different than anyone else."

This is a new head coach for all of them, really, and what they might have done for the Eagles in the past doesn't matter. It didn't matter for Chaney, who started 21 games in the previous two seasons, and served as the signal that these cutdowns might be very different.

"You see the guys they released and you obviously look at Chaney, who had been running with the twos, and it's a shocker," Matthews said. "But it's an opportunity for other guys to step up. You can't change your mind-set because it's the end of camp. You just do your best and put your best film out there to impress the coaches."

Matthews believes he is better suited to play in the new 3-4 alignment of defensive coordinator Bill Davis. With the large defensive linemen, and occasionally the outside linebackers, occupying the opponent's line, the inside linebackers potentially have more freedom to hit their gaps and plug the running game. Whether Matthews has adapted well enough and made the right decisions often enough since the start of OTAs will become apparent by the end of the week. Matthews will try not to let that occupy his thoughts between now and then.

"I don't recommend it," he said. "Not too many guys talk about it. It's just unnecessary stress. We don't make the decisions around here."

On the defensive side, Davis will be the one doing the judging, but the final call on how to balance that 53-man roster will fall to Kelly. He said he plans to meet with each player who is released, which is not always the norm in the NFL.

"I think Billy Davis made the point to me. Billy got cut after his one tryout with the Dolphins, and that's the only time you get cut. You remember that for the rest of your life," Kelly said. "I think we're conscious of that."

This isn't college anymore. They take away the books and the dining hall here. Around a crowded locker room now, the players know the crowd will be thinning soon. Some just don't know whether they will still be around to see what it looks like.

Click here for complete coverage of Philadelphia Eagles training camp.

Contact Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @bobfordsports.

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